16 June 2012


(I wrote this in April 2010, as another writing exercise. I thought I could use one after a fire completely destroyed the ancestral home—affectionately named the "Big House"—in Quezon City, sending our family into a sort of traumatic shock. Since then we've built another house on the same land and brought grandmother, who is ninety-five, to her “new” home in Manila.)

The last time Lola Auring was in Manila, she wrote things on the walls of the Big House. Wrote with a Mongol Number Two. This here is Josie’s, this is Jose’s, this is Violeta’s, this is Edith’s. Her four children didn’t seem to mind the penciled instructions—only, she could have gone about assigning minor spaces and inheritances in a less pointed manner. We, her children’s children, laughed at the idea. Like the bathroom would go anywhere! As though decades-old spiral staircases were assets! As though we’d leave Manila for Cagayan to take up agriculture and feed the carabaos, a suggestion which she had made more than once, I suppose to secure our future. 

But that is how she has always been: fixed in her ways and whims. Mother and Aunt Josie had the apartments at the back, but Lola had the land, all of it, which she divided, multiplied, expanded, and extended howsoever she pleased. She bought it in the early sixties, so who were we—not technically renters, but tenants still—to not forgive her for such eccentricities? Old age made her feeble, but it was just characteristic of her to keep reconfiguring, though more slowly, more deliberately as the years went by, the chairs and the tables, the plants in the garden and at the balcony, the picture frames and very old portraits, the dinner trays and the candlesticks, the icons that shook precariously whenever someone’s waist did so much as catch the edge of her lace-covered altar table.

It was also characteristic of her, when she went deaf at the age of ninety-two, to have acquired the skill of hearing the songs of angels, and to transcribe these into a form that it was hoped we all could read. She breakfasted at the round table downstairs, and whenever mother or Aunt Josie went to sit with her she talked of what she had heard the previous night, the Hallelujahs and the Emmanuels. Must she be so repetitive? At that age it seemed she must, because the young never listened. We were equally stubborn, really.

What can we do, Lola, what can we do for you, was the question that drove us in efforts to bring forth peace and tenderness in grandmother’s days—to make her feel loved. Can we help you move that chair, can we get you a slice of mango, can we get you a glass of Coke and some Cream-O, it really is scorching hot, and it’s nearly time for merienda anyway? It turned out that she hadn’t stopped doing what she could for us, never mind that she did it in ways that were solely her own.

A year before the fire, during what was her final stay at the Big House, I once came up to her bedroom and heard her struggling with a nasty cough. She was seated on the bed—her white grandmotherly hair undone, loose, and honest, her reading glasses off, her thin spotted shoulders bare and oily-looking—and she was spitting into an empty Selecta ice cream bucket, the one she used for watering the plants at the balcony. I made a move to try and clean up the mess but she wouldn’t have any of it. Instead she pulled me aside, opened a drawer from the study table, and reached for a manila envelope that contained sheets of music, the edges torn and yellowing.

Practice these, Lola said, practice like your grandfathers did so that the angels and the rest of heaven can hear you play. Never mind if you remember none of your piano lessons! Of all things, that was what she would have me do: the dignity of habit, the joy of song, a joy that seemed to fill her heart to bursting.

Two weeks later grandmother took a plane flight to Cagayan to spend the second half of the year in her hometown. I doubt if the thought had occurred to her that it was the last time she’d ever see the Big House. After all, she’d built the place and, with her weary hand, marked it. Erasing the charcoal was never for us to decide. 

11 June 2012

We're Wrong

You fight your superficiality, your shallowness, so as to try to come at people without unreal expectations, without an overload of bias or hope or arrogance, as untanklike as you can be, sans cannon and machine guns and steel plating half a foot thick; you come at them unmenacingly on your own ten toes instead of tearing up the turf with your caterpillar treads, take them on with an open mind, as equals, man to man, as we used to say, and yet you never fail to get them wrong. You might as well have the brain of a tank. You get them wrong before you meet them, while you're anticipating meeting them; and then you go home to tell somebody else about the meeting and you get them all wrong again. Since the same generally goes the same for them with you, the whole thing is really a dazzling illusion empty of all perception, an astonishing farce of misperception. And yet what are we to do about this terribly significant business of other people, which gets bled of the significance we think it has and takes on instead a significance that is ludicrous, so ill-equipped are we all to envision one another's interior workings and invisible aims? Is everyone to go off and lock the door and sit secluded like the lonely writers do, in a soundproof cell, summoning people out of words and then proposing that these word people are closer to the real thing than the real people that we mangle with our ignorance every day? The fact remains that getting people right is not what living is all about anyway. It's getting them wrong that is living, getting them wrong and wrong and wrong and then, on careful reconsideration, getting them wrong again. That's how we know we're alive: we're wrong. Maybe the best thing would be to forget being right or wrong about people and just go along for the ride. But if you can do that—well, lucky you.

Philip Roth has been recommended to me by a few friends. They are very good friends, and some of them love reading books as much as I do, so it made sense for me to take their recommendation and go out and get a copy of American Pastoral, from which the above passage is taken. It's a book, though, that I have not finished, and likely will never finish, because no matter how hard I try I just cannot bring myself to read any more of it. This doesn't mean the novel is bad. It just means the novel isn't for me. And that I must really have bad taste. (I felt exactly the same way reading The Finkler Question, which happened to win the Man Booker Prize two years ago.) Like what the above paragraph says, people get other people wrong. Even people with the best of intentions. Those who thought I would like Roth were wrong about me, in the same way that I was wrong thinking that I would like the same things and books that they did. But it's okay. 

"I hope you don't give up on reading American writing," I just wrote to another friend who had recently expressed his intention to do just that. (Naturally, he was not one of those who had recommended Roth.) Little did I know that I would soon be giving up on an American writer—well, an American novel—leaving me with the sense, as usual, of not having known what I was in for.

With that said, I am rereading The Corrections, which is turning out to be so much funnier than when I read it (and loved it) for the first time. The difference a few years can make!